How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)

Picture of a bride with her eyes closed, standing against a white flowing veil-like background with the words: How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21... and how I explain it now Summarised in fewer than 500 words.

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 is one of the scarier passages for impressionable young Christian women, as it seems to hold up pre-marital sex as a crime punishable by death. Even for married women, such as myself, the passage can be puzzling: hymeneal blood following intercourse is a notoriously unreliable proof of virginity.

Well, having just published 2,600 words explaining this law (and that doesn’t count the footnotes), I thought I’d give the short version. Here it is in fewer than 500 words:

About Deuteronomy 22:13-21 What I originally thought What I think now
It regulates: pre-marital sex threats to family honour
It assumes: all brides were expected to be virgins brides were expected to be virgins when virgin bridewealth had been paid
The groom’s complaint is: that his bride wasn’t a virgin that he didn’t get what he paid for
The case is formally initiated by: the groom, against his bride that she was not a virgin the bride’s parents, against the groom that he is slandering their daughter’s (and her family’s) honour
The bride’s parents: defend their daughter are the plaintiffs
The burden of proof is on: the parents, even though they are the defendants the parents, who substantiate their case with bedsheets stained with hymeneal blood
The fate of the bride rests on: an unreliable virginity test associated with the hymen whether the bride’s parents want to uphold her honour
If the parents present bloodied bedsheets: the bride is vindicated as having been a virgin their daughter’s and their family’s honour is vindicated
The evidence, if presented: is considered scientifically genuine is interpreted according to custom; if the parents say it was genuine, everyone has to accept that
If the bride had been a virgin but her hymen didn’t bleed: the law would give a false guilty verdict for her that probably wouldn’t be a deciding factor in the outcome of the case
If the verdict goes against the groom: he is punished for falsely accusing his bride (but not with death) he is punished for falsely attempting to (1) slander the bride’s family honour, (2) recoup the bridewealth, and (3) obtain a divorce
The verses where the bride is not vindicated: are an alternative outcome to the initial scenario, except the groom’s accusation is upheld are a sub-case and a separate law added at a later date
If the verdict goes against the bride: she is found guilty of pre-marital sex she is found guilty of subverting her parents’ authority and undermining social order
The focus on female sexuality: is weird; when a man has pre-marital sex it’s not a capital crime reflects gendered assumptions about how family honour is upheld, but honour expectations applied to both sons and daughters
The underpinning ideology: is the same behind both halves of the law is different for first case and the sub-case
The death penalty clause should be understood: solely in legal and literal terms as possibly written by a moralist rather than a law-giver
The death penalty reflects: the importance of saving sex until marriage one of a number of possibilities: the assertion of patriarchal authority over women’s sexuality, an ideal to remind the people to be faithful to YHWH, or the seriousness of undermining social order
In the New Testament, Mary: is the epitome of a young woman who waited until marriage; Christian women should emulate her was innocent; this challenges Christians to re-evaluate our understanding of how sex should/shouldn’t relate to social order


References are given in detail in the full post, but they include:

  • Aaron Koller: Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22 p279-296, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte, 2010:16
  • Pressler, Carolyn, and Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (1991): ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web.
  • Milstein, Sara J. “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Independent Logic of Deuteronomy 22:25–27.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137.3 (2018): 625-43. Web
  • Edenburg, Cynthia. “Ideology and Social Context of the Deuteronomic Women’s Sex Laws (Deuteronomy 22:13-29).” Journal of Biblical Literature 128.1 (2009): 43-60. Web.

These sources also cite:

  • Alexander Rofé, Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant,” Henoch 9 (1987): 131–59 (cf. in Hebrew in Beit Miqra 22 [1977]: 19–36)

For more great reading, I recommend:


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